I was walking into Heaton, my backpack heavy on my shoulders, when my mobile rang. I knew it was Danny without looking and braced myself for the onslaught. Reality had penetrated the fug in his head and he wasn’t happy.
‘I’m not abandoning you, Dan. You’re not a child.’
I hung up feeling guilty. Then felt bad for feeling guilty. Then felt stupid for feeling bad about feeling guilty.
Things didn’t improve through the day. Danny bombarded me with texts, pleading, whining, and angry by turns, until my phone was choking with petulant rage. I stopped reading them after a while. Surely he’d run out of credit by now.
I cleaned in a frenzy, hoovering, polishing and ironing my way through two houses in Heaton and another in Jesmond. Finally, exhausted, I headed home. In fact, I was so tired I almost forgot I’d moved, and was halfway through town when I remembered and had to turn around and drag myself back to Ouseburn.
Later that evening I found myself sitting in the front seat of Jonah’s van clutching a huge casserole dish wrapped in a tea towel. We were driving up to The Village in Fenham for his band practice, his guitar and amp strapped down in the back. Jonah had cooked jerk chicken while I hovered in the kitchen and watched his sinuous fingers chopping chillies and onions as he danced between the benches in a cloud of allspice and ginger. Now I could feel the heat from the chicken radiating through my hands and thighs while I listened to him talk. His smooth, deep voice slipped into my ears and around my brain like honey laced with rum.
‘Cosmic plays bass like a demon possessed by an angel. He’s a total, locked down funky motherfucker. The original Unmoved Mover.’
‘I’m guessing he wasn’t christened Cosmic,’ I said.
‘Na-ah. His wife calls him Ray. D’you see what we did there?’ He shot me a smirk.
I grinned back. ‘I dread to think what you call his wife.’
‘Linda. She’s looking forward to meeting you.’
‘Is that so?’ He’d been talking about me behind my back. ‘What about the other one, the drummer?’
‘Daylight plays drums like an angel possessed by a demon.’
‘Short for Daylight Robbery,’ he said, as if that explained everything. ‘He’s called Robin.’
‘Right. And what do Cosmic and Daylight call you?’
‘Never you mind.’
‘Not much of an alias.’
Jonah laughed and shifted gears with a crunch. We crept through the traffic in spasms and finally arrived at The Village, which turned out to be a standard terraced house with peeling window frames and a garden left to the whims of nature. Ray and Linda had bought the house with the inheritance Linda received when her parents died. While Ray worked with Jonah in bureaucratic purgatory, Linda ran The Village as a B&B cum commune, with paying guests and friends staying from all over the world. Right now, they had two Norwegian scientists visiting, studying climate change at the university. Meanwhile, Robin ran a recording studio back in Ouseburn.
‘It’s a bit of a mad house,’ said Jonah, as we clambered out the van. ‘That’s why I moved out. Needed some space to think, for the lyrics, y’know. It’s hard to concentrate when you’re living in Clapham Junction.’
He led the way to the front door, laden with his guitar and amp; I followed with the chicken. From amongst the winter stripped bushes I heard a plaintive mewling and turned. I searched the ravaged garden for the source of the sound. Golden almond eyes watched me through a thicket of branches and dead leaves.
‘You’ve found the cat,’ said Jonah. ‘She’s feral. Won’t let anyone near her, comes in when she wants, eats and buggers off. She loves jerk.’
‘What’s she called?’
‘Erm… That’s complicated.’
Jonah pushed his key into the lock just as the door swung open. Two giants emanating the kind of health and vigour rarely seen in the British, burst through the open door. Jonah stepped aside as they slapped him on the back and plunged down the path to the gate, without breaking off their intense, incomprehensible discussion.
‘Morgan and Henrik have had a breakthrough. It’s very exciting.’
The female voice pulled my attention away from the babbling titans and I turned to the door. A voluptuous woman with a mass of wavy auburn hair was leaning on the door frame smiling vaguely at the retreating scientists.
‘I don’t understand a word of it,’ she said, ‘but they insist they’re going to save the world.’
‘Linda, this is Zoe,’ said Jonah.
Linda’s face froze in amazed awe for a fraction, then burst into smiles. She flew down the step from the door and engulfed me in an awkward, hairy hug; awkward because of the casserole dish in my hands.
‘Oh, this is so exciting. Jonah’s told me all about you. Come in, please.’
Linda ushered us both into the house and absently closed the door behind her. Suddenly, she lunged at the door in alarm and pulled it open again. The cat slipped through the gap and slunk between our legs.
‘Goodness, Fluffy,’ said Linda. ‘I nearly chopped you in two.’
Fluffy was black with white paws and white tufts on her ears. Her name didn’t seem complicated to me, although I doubted she was very pleased with it. She ignored the humans and ran straight up the stairs, which were, to my surprise, bright purple with red hearts painted at intervals all the way up.
Every wall was painted a different colour, as if the decorator couldn’t decide which scheme to go for and had randomly allocated colours to walls, heedless of the result. Spread over the floor and walls were rugs and drapes showing elaborate geometric patterns, mainly from Tibet and the east. I had entered my worst nightmare – a hippy paradise.
Standing at the top of the stairs was a wiry man in jeans and stretched tight T-shirt; a powerhouse of muscle waiting to explode. I felt sure this must be Daylight, the drummer.
‘Hey there, Luke,’ he said, as the cat slunk by his feet.
‘Robin, honestly. She’s a girl,’ said Linda, as we followed her up the stairs.
‘She’s a lady,’ said another man, emerging from the kitchen down the hall ahead of us. ‘And she’s called Stella.’
By a process of elimination, I guessed this was Cosmic Ray. He towered over the rest of them, easily as tall as the Norwegians, and was solid, with long fingers, like Jonah’s. I could see he would make a good bassist. I could also see the problem with the cat’s moniker.
‘I’m confused,’ I said. ‘Has anyone asked the cat what she would like to be called? Jonah, what do you call her?’
Linda beamed at Jonah. Ray and Robin exchanged amused glances.
‘Oh, yes Jone, do tell,’ said Robin.
Jonah looked like he wanted to disappear. Fluffy/Luke/Stella sat down in the open doorway to the kitchen and watched us. She yawned and licked a paw.
‘Zoe,’ said Jonah simply. He flashed me an apologetic smile, although I don’t know why, and shrugged. ‘It means life, and it’s, ah… always been my favourite name.’
If I hadn’t been holding the casserole dish in my arms I’d have thrown them around his neck and kissed him. I felt my cheeks redden. It had suddenly gone very quiet and everyone seemed to be looking at me.
Ray cleared his throat and took Jonah’s amp. ‘To work.’ He disappeared up the next flight of stairs.
‘Yes, the quicker you boys get started, the sooner we can eat,’ said Linda, taking me by the arm and leading me to the kitchen. ‘We have lots to talk about.’
The kitchen was built from mismatched pre-war units spread around the walls and piled on top of one another. The same anarchic colour scheme applied here, and the effect was galvanising. Everywhere I turned, my senses were assaulted and shaken, and I found myself hoping I didn’t have a trance. Who knew what would happen under such stimulation? Perhaps my brain would pop.
The far end of the room opened into a windowed alcove filled with climbing vines and tomato plants. In the centre of the recess was a huge table made from what looked like old railway sleepers, sanded smooth, and surrounded by a higgledy-piggledy collection of chairs and stools.
I put the casserole dish in the oven, as directed, and accepted a bowl of potatoes to peel, sitting on a stool at the great slab of a table. It was like sitting in a greenhouse. Linda stood at the sink washing up plates and cutlery.
‘I’ve always wanted to meet someone like you,’ she said.
‘Someone like me?’ I dropped a peeled and slippery potato back into the bowl.
‘Mmmm. I just do the cards, y’know. And crystals, aromatherapy, colour therapy, that kind of thing.’
‘So you’re responsible for all this incredible colour?’
‘Good, isn’t it?’
I put on my best fixed smile and nodded, a little too enthusiastically. ‘I’ve never seen anything like it.’ Linda seemed incapable of detecting irony.
‘I’m training myself to see auras. I expect you see them all the time, it must be normal for you. I wish I could see like that, can you see mine now? What does it look like, have I got any murky bits, are my chakras spinning okay?’
I’m sorry to say my mouth dropped open. I stared at Linda like she was an escaped lunatic, until I realised how rude that must seem. She probably thought I was checking out her chakras.
‘What exactly has Jonah told you about me?’
Linda grabbed a tea towel and dried her hands, joining me at the table, her cheeks pink with excitement.
‘That you’re a visionary.’ She rested her hand on my arm. ‘They used to hide themselves away in monasteries. Even the other monks would keep away from them, because they saw such awesome and terrifying sights. But these days, they’re out in the world. Loose. Like you.’
‘Erm… I’m not really religious, Linda. Don’t know anything about monks.’
‘Yes, yes, but that’s the point. Don’t you see?’
‘Shall I do you a reading? I’m sure it’ll come up.’ She reached across the table and picked up a bundle of cards wrapped in a silk scarf. After laying the scarf out between us, she shuffled the deck.
I was starting to squirm, and desperate to escape, took the potatoes to the sink to give them a wash.
‘I don’t want to disappoint you, Linda, but there’s nothing special about my trances. They’re more annoying than anything else. They just get in the way.’
‘Have you got a teacher?’
I shook my head and turned off the tap, setting the potatoes to drain on the side and drying my hands on my jeans. I leaned against the sink, determined not to get drawn into this ludicrous tarot thing.
‘They say when the pupil is ready, the teacher appears,’ she said, and stopped shuffling, turning over three cards in quick succession. ‘Oh.’
Linda laid the cards out on the scarf and beamed at me. I tried to look enthusiastic and encouraging, but probably just looked constipated.
‘Past, present, future,’ she said, indicating each card in turn. ‘The Fool in the Past means you’ve recently started a new phase in your life, a leap into the unknown. Next, the Present is the Star, a great card. It shows inspiration and help. You’ll meet your guardian angel or develop a hidden talent. Then, the Future is the World, the end of a cycle and reaching your goal.’
It sounded pretty vague to me and I didn’t know what to make of it (nothing), so I smiled and nodded. Linda leapt from her chair and wrapped me in a bear hug, her curls finding their way into every orifice in my head.
‘Whatever happens, Zoe, it’s going to be amazing. You’ll see.’
While Linda finished preparing dinner, I sat at the table, idly going through the tarot cards and looking at the pictures. The music of Dionysus Wept throbbed and pulsed through the house. They stopped and started and experimented. I found myself fascinated by the process: how did they know when it worked? What were they listening for? The three of them seemed perfectly locked together: the way the music would suddenly shift, speed up or slow, subtle changes in rhythm – it was almost like they were mind readers.
And when Jonah started to sing I couldn’t resist. He was an angel, a banshee, a raging torrent of beauty. Like Odysseus, I had to get closer. I drifted up the stairs and sat outside the door of the rehearsal room, my head resting against the quivering wall. Remembering what Jonah had said about music being his sanctuary, I closed my eyes, for once not frightened of my mind loosening its moorings. I allowed myself to be carried and churned, plunged downwards then lifted, exulted.
A shrill ringing punctured the glorious cacophony pulling me back to my seat on the stairs. My phone was ringing. It was Danny. I sighed and watched the phone go off when he hung up. I closed my eyes again, but again the phone rang, and again, and again. Finally, I snatched it up and switched if off.
I was settling back into my uncomfortable perch when the cat appeared at my feet.
The cat purred and rubbed herself around my legs, pushing her bony head into my hand and running her rough little tongue over my fingers.
‘Thought you didn’t like people,’ I said, scratching the cat behind its ears. ‘I think it’s about time we found out your real name. What d’you reckon?’
I watched the cat thoughtfully as she stretched out a paw to demand more petting. She was the least feral feral cat I had ever met. Perhaps she was faking it, or maybe she just recognised a fellow uncivilised creature in me.
‘How about Maya?’
She looked at me and blinked, then up came the paw again. I obliged and rubbed under her chin.
‘Maya it is.’
I ran the cloth over Buddha’s belly and smiled at him. Buddha smiled his chubby wooden smile back. The figure in question belonged to Ella Richmond and I cleaned him once a week, leaving his belly and pate gleaming. Ella had picked him up in Thailand on holiday, and knew nothing about Buddhism. I knew nothing about it either, only what I could remember from Monkey when I was a kid, and that all seemed to be about fighting demons and flying around on magic clouds, and I was pretty sure Buddha had never done that, not literally at least. Ella had proudly placed the foot high statuette on the mantelpiece and declared, ‘He looked so cheerful, I simply had to have him.’
Ella was far from cheerful. She was deep into a mid-life crisis, subsisting on anti-depressants and cake, while her husband kept disappearing to what he euphemistically called the office. Ella had the gaunt appearance of a woman trying to look younger and firmer than she was; a failed attempt to defy gravity. Her misery broadcast from her eyes no matter how wide her wretched smile. The thinner she got, the more desperate her eyes, and the longer Martin stayed away. I’d watched this mutual torture unfold over the last two years, gently cajoling Ella to get a life of her own, but she was more interested in buying stuff. She was the perfect customer for Popper Originals.
I transferred my attention to the bookshelves, although they didn’t contain many books. Ella was clanging about in the kitchen, baking. In between bouts of starvation, she had baking binges, filling Tupperware boxes with flapjacks and cupcakes and all manner of sponges. She said it calmed her.
The doorbell trilled and the clanging stopped as Ella went to the front door. I could hear muffled voices, then the living room door was flung open. Ella stood in the doorway in a crimson pinny, smoothing back her hair with floury fingers. She looked flushed, even happy.
‘Why didn’t you tell me you had such a handsome brother?’ she said.
Standing behind her was Danny, looking nervous. He shot me a wan smile and squeezed past Ella into the room.
‘Make yourself at home, Daniel,’ said Ella. ‘I’ll put the kettle on. Tea, yes?’
‘Tea would be lovely, thank you, Mrs Richmond.’
Ella flushed the same colour as her apron. ‘Oh please, call me Ella.’ She left the room giggling to herself like a teenager.
I stood transfixed, duster clenched in my fist, and stared at Danny in disbelief.
‘What?’ he said.
‘She actually giggled.’
Danny grinned. ‘Long time since I’ve had that effect on a woman.’
‘Oh, for goodness sake.’ I wanted to spray him in the face with my polish. It was only olive oil and lemon juice, but still… I squirted a shelf instead.
Ella bustled back into the room carrying a tray laden with teapot, sugar and milk, three cups, cake and biscuits. She had taken off her apron, straightened out her hair and reapplied her lipstick. She poured the tea and handed a plate containing a generous wedge of chocolate cake to Danny.
‘It’s the last piece. I have another baking now.’ She gazed at him expectantly.
Danny seemed to realise what was required of him and took an enormous bite of cake. He closed his eyes and chewed, crumbs and dark icing smeared around his mouth. He made all the right noises and gave Ella a thumbs up.
I rolled my eyes and grabbed a custard cream. A ping sounded from the kitchen. Ella gave Danny a sultry smile and winked.
‘Don’t go away. Another one coming right up,’ she said, and disappeared through the door.
Danny watched her go, his eyes vacant, jaws chomping away on cake. I knew exactly what he was thinking.
‘Stop that,’ I said.
Danny looked genuinely perplexed. He took a swig of tea to wash down the cake. ‘Don’t know what you’re talking about.’
‘Yes you do. You’re an opportunistic little fuckhead. Free cake and sex on tap. Husband away all the time, off her tits on Prozac. She’s desperate.’
‘That makes two of us. When are you coming home?’
‘I’m not.’ I turned back to my polishing. ‘It’s time you grew up.’
‘Fine. In that case, you can’t tell me what to do. Or not.’
I spun back round. Danny was exasperating. I wanted him to be happy, but he always chased after the wrong things: booze, drugs, breasts. He didn’t know what he wanted. Well, not in the long term, anyway. He knew very well what he wanted in the short term.
‘It’ll end in tears,’ I said. ‘It always does.’
‘You don’t know everything,’ he said, and stuffed a whole chocolate digestive into his mouth.
‘Nobody does,’ I said, my eyes falling on the beaming Buddha.
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